In a pretty major move, the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints just announced it would back some very specific anti-discrimination legal protections for gays and lesbians.

That's according to the AP. Earlier today, leaders in Salt Lake City announced that the church now favors local, state and national protections against discrimination in housing and employment. That's likely to have an immediate impact in Utah, improving the odds for bills that've been floating around the state legislature for years.

The Mormon leaders acknowledged in pretty blunt terms that, over the centuries, society has often treated gays like shit. Said Neill Marriott, who serves on the LDS Public Affairs Committee: "Ultimately, most of society recognized that such treatment was simply wrong, and that such basic human rights as securing a job or a place to live should not depend on a person's sexual orientation." What a concept!

As the Salt Lake Tribune points out, the Mormon church backed a 2009 proposal along these lines specific to Salt Lake City, and the AP notes that since 2012 they've encouraged followers to treat gays like, you know, fellow human beings. But this announcement was broader and particularly splashy, complete with a live-streamed presser (which you can rewatch here) including three elders from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The framing is also very, very interesting. The church still does not approve of gay marriage, and says any sex other than between a married man and woman is "contrary to the laws of God." This is not a sign that Mormon dissidents like outspoken blogger John P. Dehlin, who has written openly of his support for gay marriage and the ordination of women, can breathe easy without fear of excommunication. Rather, an email announcement being sent around D.C., published by the Washington Post, couches the move as an attempt to share the public sphere, balancing LGBT rights with "religious freedom."

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"This appeal for a balanced approach between religious and gay rights does not represent a change or shift in doctrine for the Church," it read, continuing:

According to an e-mail sent to some faith-based activists in Washington from the church's D.C. advocate office, the church "will support legislation where it is being sought to provide protections in housing, employment and some other areas where LGBT people do not have protections, while ensuring that religious freedom is not compromised…the Church believes that a 'fairness for all' approach, which strives to balance reasonable safeguards for LGBT people while protecting key religious rights, is the best way to overcome the sharp divisions and present cultural divide in our nation," the e-mail said.

But in their announcement, church leaders also sounded the alarm about "the steady erosion of treasured freedoms that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution." And they still want lots of religious exemptions and protections, for both individuals and church owned and run businesses. From the AP:

Mormon leaders still want to hire and fire workers based not only on religious beliefs, but also on behavior standards known as honor codes that require gays and lesbians to remain celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex. The church also wants legal protections for religious objectors who work in government and health care, such as a physician who refuses to perform an abortion, or provide artificial insemination for a lesbian couple.

One activist put it this way to the Washington Post:

"As a matter of policy, there's no 'there' there," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. "The so-called religious exemption is the size of five Mack trucks. It entirely neuters their proposal." However, that doesn't mean the announcement won't impact the topic, he said. "In the relationship..between Mormon families and their LGBT children and LGBT friends, I have no doubt that this will be deeply meaningful… From the perspective of symbolism, this is a step forward in the continued acceptance of LGBT people by the church."

It is certainly a nice change from backing Prop. 8 in California, and they are distancing themselves from the NO GAYS EVER GET 'EM OUTTA HERE frothing at the mouth you get from certain corners of the religious right, who unfortunately often seem to define "religious freedom" as "freedom from ever encountering anyone who's ever looked sideways at a member of their own gender." It'll be interesting to see how this plays out—and where the Mormon church goes on gay rights from here.

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No doubt Mitt Never-Gonna-Stop-Running Romney will take this ready-made argument his religious leaders have handed him and bungle it somehow.

Image via AP.